HP's perilous PC dilemma

Company can't live with PCs, can't live without them (for now)

Michael Dell stated the obvious on Monday, telling an audience at an enterprise server launch event in San Francisco that Dell is "not really a PC company; it's an end-to-end IT company."

Leo Apotheker essentially made that same argument about Hewlett-Packard last August when he announced that HP -- the world's largest PC manufacturer -- would try to spin off its PC group and forge a future as an enterprise product and services vendor.

The horrified reaction of Wall Street soon cost Apotheker his job, and within months new CEO Meg Whitman reversed his decision, announcing that HP now had no intentions of getting out of the PC business.

But in a fascinating post at MondayNote.com, Jean-Louis Gassée -- yes, that Jean-Louis Gassée -- wonders if Apotheker had the right idea.

While still the world's leading PC manufacturer, HP's computer market share and revenue are falling. And it’s relatively clear that the computing future belongs to mobile devices –- smartphones, tablets, even wearables. As Gassée asks, "Why stick with a declining product line within a declining industry?"

He partially answers the question himself by noting that, despite a 15% year-over-year drop, HP's Personal Services Group (the PC division) still was the company's top revenue generator, accounting for 29% of total sales. But the low margins inherent in the PC business make PSG the company's least profitable division.

Gassée writes:

"I still think HP’s initial intuition was right, that the PC business, as driven by Microsoft and Intel, will increasingly become a race to the bottom — with the two Wintel allies sucking all the profits. Instead of 'rooting for a fantastic Windows 8' [as Gassée quotes Whitman], HP should root around for a buyer for its PC business."

Which gets to the root of HP's dilemma. Every quarter the company hangs on to PSG, its potential spinoff value diminishes. I think that was the assumption driving Apotheker's decision to get HP out of the PC business -- a decision, as Gassée and I both have noted, which was approved by a board of directors that included Whitman.

But the problem was that HP was coming off an absolute disaster with the TouchPad tablet. In fact, part of Apotheker's bombshell last summer included the news that HP would kill off its webOS mobile operating system upon which the TouchPad was based.

Meaning that Apotheker couldn't say, "Folks, HP can now afford to get out of the PC business because we're so well-positioned in the tablet and mobile markets!"

In other words, HP had no evolving business to pick up the slack from losing nearly 30% of its revenue, low margins or no low margins.

This is in contrast to IBM, which sold its PC business to Lenovo in 2005. By then Big Blue had been building a global services business for years that comprised nearly half of the company's revenue. PCs, meanwhile accounted for just 13% of IBM's $96.3 billion revenue in 2004.

Meanwhile, HP's services revenue is growing, but at a snail's pace. Year-over-year growth in the most recent quarter was 1%. The quarter before that it was 2%. And yet still services should overtake PSG as HP's biggest revenue generator in the current quarter, assuming another drop in PC sales.

The painful truth for HP shareholders is that the company currently isn't well-positioned to transition away from PCs, thus it will be extremely risky to walk away from that business in the near future. Yet the longer HP waits to sell its still market-leading PC business, the less it will be worth. It's a classic lose-lose situation.

OK, readers, if you were CEO of HP, what would you do? If you have any suggestions for Meg, feel free to leave a comment below. I'll make sure she gets it.

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